Are you seeking a profitable art business?
This is the Art BIZ Podcast on the blog at Art BIZ Success. I assume that, if you’re listening, you are interested in an art business, not just an art hobby.
There’s nothing at all wrong with art hobbies. I highly recommend them. But it’s a whole new ballgame when you turn your art into a business. When you begin asking for money in exchange for your talent.
I want to talk about being a profitable artist. What it takes to not just make and sell art, but to also make money. To ensure that you have a positive net income in your art business. Stick with me.
I’ve talked with many artists who try to make a little money here and there, and then find they no longer enjoy making art after trying to sell it. The pressure to make money in a business is real.
Businesses, by definition, seek profit. Breaking even with the numbers can only work for so long. If you’re claiming deductions on a business here in the U.S., the IRS is going to come after you if you continue to operate at a loss. See the “hobby loss” rule for the details and talk with your accountant. Look for similar rules if you are outside our borders.
As I said, this episode of the podcast isn’t for hobbyists. It’s for you if you are ready to step up and be the boss of your art business. To be the CEO.
Listen to the Art Biz Podcast
The CEO (Chief Executive Officer) is the person at the top of a company’s hierarchy. The buck ultimately stops with the CEO.
You must BE the CEO of your art business. Because, like it or not, that’s exactly what you are.
Let’s break down what that means.
Profitable Artists Are in Charge
If you want to control your art business, you must take charge of your destiny. No one cares about your success more than you do.
Nobody else is going to look after you or your business like you can. Nobody.
This means that you assume 100% responsibility for your actions, decisions, and results. No whining. No complaining. This is your business.
In my programs, I ask artists to sign a responsibility contract. I want my students and clients to understand that, while I am responsible for giving them valuable information and strategies or running a profitable art business, they are responsible for doing the work. I can’t control what they do outside of my watch or even under my watch, but I can remind them of the power they possess.
You Don’t Need to Do It Alone
CEOs don’t run companies all by themselves! They have COOs, CTOs, other managers, and a full staff of competent hires that often don’t get enough credit or share in the profits. But I’ll leave that to another podcast to tackle.
Unfortunately, when you are a 1-person business, you are not just the CEO. You also assume these other roles. But you are not alone.
As an Artist CEO, you seek input from a spouse, another artist, a friend with business savvy, or a coach. You find community—online or in person—with other like-minded artists with whom you can discuss challenges and strategies to overcome them. You know who to go to for support with specific situations, and who to avoid when negativism or criticism is possible.
In short, you ask for help. There are so many people out there ready to help you—even ready to help you sell your art. In fact, I have a new short e-course that is absolutely free called 31 People Who Can Help Sell Your Art. In 5 emails, I break down these 31 categories of people—some of whom are already in your life and so you just need to reconsider your relationship to them.
Asking for help and advice is a sign of strength rather than weakness. You can make more informed decisions for your business by learning from others’ experiences, and that can help you become a profitable artist.
That brings me to my next point.
Delegate Your Weaknesses
CEOs do what they do best and delegate the rest. A CEO doesn’t have time to micromanage or, worse, do work that other people are better qualified to do.
As an Artist CEO, your #1 priority is your studio practice. Always! If you aren’t getting enough time in the studio, something on the business side needs to change. It must change. Because without the art you are not an artist. Without the art, there is no prospect of a profitable business.
As you go throughout your week, pay attention to tasks you’re currently doing that you could delegate. It doesn’t mean you’re going to hire someone right away. I just want you to be aware of how you’re spending your time. I think you’ll be surprised.
Now let’s talk about how you’re spending your money.
As a Profitable Artist, You Know Your Numbers
It is true that you have to spend money to make money, but do you know the actual numbers that it takes?
As an Artist CEO, you sure do. You know how to cost out a service or product, and you know what your profit margins are.
You take into account all of your expenses and overhead costs, including your materials, time, and what I call the PITA factor (pain-in-the-ass factor). You understand that your work must be priced for its market, but you are also aware that you must make a living.
A number of years ago, artist Liz Crain wrote a couple of blog posts that detail the considerations of showing her work in certain venues and which ended up, surprisingly, to be most profitable. One is for brick-and-mortar spaces and the other for online opportunities.
I think you’ll find these posts enlightening and be inspired by the deep dive she did to find her most profitable venues for sales.
Analyze Your P&L Statement
Look at your Profit & Loss (P&L) statement every month or so. This isn’t an easy task if you aren’t using bookkeeping software, so I hope you already have numbers plugged in to Quickbooks, Quicken, FreshBooks, or something similar. You really want to understand the numbers in front of you so you can adjust operations as necessary.
This statement, which outlines income and expenses, will show you what income stream is making you the most money, and will also show you where your expenses are the heaviest. If a product, service, venue, or sales outlet is losing money, do what you can to stop the bleeding immediately. Before it’s too late.
[ Hear more about income streams in Art Biz Podcast episode 18 with Helen Hiebert ]
Okay, so you have your P&L statement in front of you. Just do a once over. The numbers are tempting. You see a big number in one of the income areas and get excited. Oooo. That must be a good one!
Not. So. Fast.
Just because you’re making a lot of sales in one area, doesn’t mean it’s the most profitable income stream. You have to take into account the expenses: real and emotional.
Which income streams have higher expenses associated with them than others? For example, you gave a workshop. You made a good amount from registrations, but you also had to rent the space, take out ads, provide food and beverage, get extra insurance to cover that space, hire an extra hand, and spend way too much time and energy getting people to sign up.
Can you decrease expenses and become a more profitable artist with the next workshop? Maybe make it bigger or smaller?
Which are taking too much of your time or emotional energy? In other words, you really dislike doing them for the amount of time they take or the amount of income you see in return.
You can look at these numbers with all of your income streams: original works and reproductions that require framing and shipping, lower priced products like clothing and pillows that take attention away from selling higher-priced originals, a calendar, book, or note cards. Analyze them all.
Which are worth saving? Maybe they’re not your highest earners right now, but you can see a path for them rising to the top.
This brings me to my final point.
You Must Be Able to Adapt to a Changing Environment
If Covid taught us anything, it taught us that some artists were better prepared to adapt than others. They had an online shopping cart or an online classroom in place. They had invested in their online presence and weren’t afraid to adapt in-person events to the online world. (On a side note, I believe individual artists were far better prepared to pivot than galleries or museums. Kudos to you for that!)
The world is changing faster than ever before. To run a profitable art business, you want to stay on top of technology, trends, materials, and information.
It’s not helpful to wish things were different than they are or for the good old days when you didn’t have to use email or a social media account (remember those?). It’s not just not helpful. It’s destructive.
As an Artist CEO, you keep an eye on trends. Here are three to be aware of.
- Where art is being exhibited, whether it’s at international art fairs, traditional galleries, outdoor festivals, or online.
- How art is being exhibited, because exhibition design evolves.
- How art is being promoted and sold. What’s the latest way to photograph your art, share on social media, and advertise? What kind of events and experiences are other artists and venues staging?
You might be intrigued by virtual reality tours of exhibition spaces and contemplate the possibilities. God forbid you should consider turning your art into NFTs. I’m not a fan, but we can’t ignore what’s happening around us. You might not dive into these waters quickly, but you know they’re available. You are aware. You’re in tune with your local community and with the greater art world.
You anticipate that the landscape will change because that’s how the world evolves. It is never satisfied with the status quo. But you don’t mind. You have staying power. You are becoming a profitable artist. You are prepared to adapt and even eager for new challenges.
And you know you don’t have to do it alone.
Remember to sign up for my FREE short e-course 31 People Who Can Help Sell Your Art.
Check out episode 97 where I talk with ceramist Patricia Griffin about how she sells her functional ceramics by opening up her shopping cart only at certain points during the year. It’s made her more money, created a heckuva lot of buzz, and been fun for her. And episode 98 in which painter Jill Soukup discusses how her business has changed in the last 10 years and the steps she has taken to become more profitable.
Listen to the Art Biz Podcast
This post was first published on August 15, 2012, and has been expanded with an added podcast episode. Original comments are intact.